“I’m Thinking of Ending Things” review: A deep and dark existential tale


Courtesy of Netflix

Ver Lumod

Charlie Kaufman’s latest film “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” is a bleak yet profound existential statement on mortality and death.

On a surface level, the film explores a young woman, played by Jessie Buckley, who visits her boyfriend Jake’s parents, played by David Thewlis and Toni Collette. If meeting the parents isn’t dreadful enough, Buckley’s character has misgivings about Jake, played by Jesse Plemons. They have been together for seven weeks, but it feels like a lifetime of nothingness to her. As the title states, she’s been constantly thinking of ending things, but she can’t seem to articulate it out loud as she finds herself interrupted every time.

Adapting the novel of the same name from Iain Reid, Kaufman has been pretty much an expert in concocting labyrinthine mazes into existential thought in his films, from “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” to his directorial debut “Synecdoche, New York.” Knowing him, it’s fair to say that no one expects “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” to be easy to go through. I myself had to watch it twice in order to understand what the hell he was talking about.

Some people might regard it as a sign that it’s probably a bad film, but it feels unfair and reductive to write Kaufman’s film off as an exercise in futility. Maybe watching it is a test to see who is actually paying attention and who is not. Watching it again and again means that they are interested in deciphering the puzzle that is “I’m Thinking of Ending Things.”

And boy, is it a doozy.

Without spoiling a thing, the film thrives on an atmosphere of unsettling dread. Someone keeps changing names. A dog constantly wags itself dry. A swing set seems to be everywhere. It snows where it shouldn’t be snowing. These might be the usual tropes for horror, but what’s truly interesting is that they represent our fears about growing old.

We might want to cling to nostalgia to stop thinking about the fact that we all die alone and lonely. As Buckley’s character says, “It’s a uniquely human fantasy that things will get better, born perhaps of the uniquely human understanding that things will not.” We lie to ourselves by hoping for the best in order to make everything seem painless when we do go.

The film sees Kaufman tinkering with space and time in no other way since David Lynch. Thanks to its 4-by-3 aspect ratio, it forces the audience to truly pay attention, even as everything goes increasingly bonkers, but it would all be a sham if not for the brilliant performances of Buckley and Plemons. They help sell Kaufman’s narrative without resorting to exposition like Christopher Nolan’s latest film “Tenet” would have done. And in a sense, the viewer follows them down the rabbit hole of rewarding existential thought.

“I’m Thinking of Ending Things” should be watched with no distractions. The fact that it was released on Netflix might have accounted for its divisive response, but it shouldn’t be treated as something to be put on the background while doing some chores. It’s made to be simply experienced, which is an ineffable fact that lies at the heart of all thoughtful cinema.

Maybe the mean-spirited argument between Jake and his girlfriend about John Cassavetes’s 1974 film “A Woman Under the Influence” (derived word for word from film critic Pauline Kael’s review) in one scene is a satire on how we might inevitably interpret this film. If it truly is, then it’s imperative to stop overthinking and just let Kaufman take control. It’s once again like a character from “Tenet” said: “Don’t understand it, feel it.”

To watch “I’m Thinking of Ending Things,” click here.

Illustration by Ariel Landry
Illustration by Ariel Landry